Spolia

by Terence MacNamee

When you walk through the streets of Naples or Salerno or any historic city in the south of Italy, you will be struck by the extent to which old building materials have been recycled again and again over generations. The Greeks and the Romans left their mark in this part of the world, and their architecture was the best. The people who lived here never forgot it. Architectural styles and human needs kept changing, but it always seemed such a shame not to make use of all the good old stuff lying around. That is why builders, beginning in the Middle Ages, found creative ways to build in bits of Greek and Roman houses and ruins into their own constructions. The cathedral in Salerno is a good example. It is a medieval building, but the fine classical pillars come from some old Roman palace nearby. As a result of all this recycling of architectural materials, many buildings here, though built in a particular style that was in vogue at a particular time, in fact contain physical elements of earlier styles going back to Antiquity.

Art historians have a special word for these reused bits of classical buildings: spolia. This is a Latin word for “spoils”, which of course originally refers to equipment left behind by a defeated enemy after a battle and reused by the victors.

Looking down over the beautiful Bay of Naples in the evening sunset, and thinking of the unbroken continuity of man’s history here for thousands of years, I begin to think that as well as architectural spolia, there are intellectual spolia too. To be sure, we come up with new philosophies and scientific theories, but they are never entirely new. We use and reuse the old ideas, transforming them in the process. Democritus was the first to talk about the atom, the indivisible constituent of matter, and we are still talking about it, though we have our own more subtle definition of it. Aristotle and the Church Fathers talked about the faculties of mind, and speculated as to how they might be distributed in certain parts of the brain – neuropsychology is still fixated on the same idea. One could quote many other examples. The point is that our philosophies and theories never seem to start from scratch; they always use bits and scraps of previous theorizing that may go right back to Antiquity.

Lévi-Strauss had a similar notion of bricolage (“tinkering” or “do-it-yourself”) in anthropology: cultures do not create their intellectual systems from scratch, but use existing material in creative ways, just like the hobbyist uses whatever materials he has got in his home workshop to produce charming and ingenious contraptions.

“Nothing new under the sun!” exclaimed King Solomon in the Bible, and he was right. When we innovate intellectually or technically, we are always recycling old terms and concepts from our history and even from other cultures. It is humbling to recall this as the umpteenth visitor admiring the scenery and the sunset in the Bay of Naples.

 

 

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